By Jason Lynch
March 17, 2003 12:00 PM

At a time when people are marrying perfect strangers, backstabbing each other in remote jungles or eating cow brains for cash prizes—all in the name of reality TV—it’s possible to forget there ever was a Fred Rogers. But in fact, the gentle, soft-spoken children’s TV host, who died of stomach cancer on Feb. 27 at 74, epitomized reality television in its purest form. For 33 years on PBS’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, spoke frankly about everything from death and divorce to loneliness and anger, reaching out to as many as 7 million kids and their families each week. “He was the last of the good guys in kid TV, which has become edgier and nastier,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who specializes in children. “He became a safe haven for kids and their parents.” Still is. Though Rogers retired in 2000, his show continues in reruns. As his wife, Joanne Byrd, 75, a concert pianist, and sons James, 43, and John, 41, mourn his passing, so do the famous “neighbors” on these pages, all with fond memories of the friendly man in the cardigan sweater.

“I based most of what I did on Blue’s Clues on Fred Rogers’s work. He had a seeming inability to condescend towards children. As a kid, I remember truly believing that he was talking to me. I thought it was just amazing that this person thought I was important enough to talk to.”

—original Blue’s Clues host Steve Burns

“One of my special memories as a mother is of my girls when they were toddlers, calling out Mister Rogers’s name when he appeared on TV. I was privileged to meet him twice at the White House, and he was even more gentle and reassuring in person.”

—Laura Bush

“He was a very open-minded man. The staff would pull practical jokes on him, and he loved it. People were proud to say they worked for Mister Rogers. He was a genuine dude who is going to stand the test of time.”

—Michael Keaton, a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stagehand in the ’70s

“He sent a wonderful letter saying how moved he was by [1989’s Dead Poets Society]. He talked about the power of teaching. After that my wife, Marsha, said, ‘Don’t ever make fun of him,’ and I didn’t. He is a very sweet man. His power with children was that he never talked down to them.”

—Robin Williams

“Tim [Robbins] and I brought Jack [then 2] and Eva [then 6] by the studio to meet him, and he was just as authentically kind and warm as he seemed on TV. He read the script of Bob Roberts and let Tim use his studio for the ‘late night’ part where Bob sings folk songs. He obviously had a great sense of humor.”

—Susan Sarandon

“I was watching him with my son Miles one day, and I was exhausted. There was this really compassionate moment, and I wondered whether it was the sleep deprivation or the genuineness of the emotion that made me cry. I was really thankful that my son was hearing that.”

—Tim Robbins

“Elmo is going to miss Mister Rogers, because he always talked right to Elmo and made him feel good about just being Elmo.”


“He was one of the most authentic people I’ve ever met. Whether it was the President of the United States or a 6-year-old, when he was with you, he made you feel you were the most important person in the world at that moment. He was open, loving and caring. Fred didn’t fake it. We all struggle for a purpose in the world, and he knew who he was and why he was here, and he never deviated from it. There is tremendous power in being gentle.”

Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton

“His mother made all his [original] sweaters. He told me that after she died [in 1981] he was so worried that he would wrap them all carefully. Home was a haven when Mister Rogers was there.”

—Joan Rivers

“Mister Rogers made us feel like we belonged, no matter who we were. After Sept. 11, there has been a growing insecurity in the world. He was immediate and a loving presence.”

The View’s Star Jones

“My 33-year-old brother watched Sesame Street to get wound up and Mister Rogers to calm down. Mister Rogers’s spirit will always remain with us. There will never be another like him. I was blessed to know him and Charles Schulz. They were cut from the same cloth.”

—Al Roker

“He was basically a very shy man. He wasn’t the sort of fellow who got up and made bold statements about what we should be doing for children’s television. He did it in his own way and did it very effectively.”

—Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan

Jason Lynch

Reported by: Jennifer Frey, Frank Swertlow, Linda Marx and Sandra Sobieraj